Next to Godliness by Lacey Jane Henson

Lacey Jane Henson lives in Seattle, WA with her husband, son, and cats. Her story, “Trigger,” previously won the Katherine Ann Porter prize for fiction, and her writing has also appeared in MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Third Coast, and the Electric Literature blog.

After Mom and Dad split up for the third time, Dad left immediately and Mom spent a record-breaking week in her bathrobe. She holed up in her bedroom most of the time, reading magazines and listening to the radio. Claire and I were suddenly allowed to watch TV whenever we wanted, and subsist on cereal and Top Ramen, until she woke up one morning and decided to do something about us.

She appeared in the living room, fully clothed, and switched off the TV right in the middle of our show. “You guys need a vacation,” she said, smiling and raking her fingers through Claire’s hair. “It’s summer after all.” 

And just like that she packed the two of us into the car and drove up to Grandma’s with the intention of leaving us for “a few weeks.” She kept spinning it like the trip was a special getaway, but Grandma lived in farm country, ate very sensibly, and never spoiled us like Dad’s parents did. When Mom dropped us off, she only stayed a few minutes before speeding away, kicking up dust as she backed down Grandma’s long, gravel drive. We watched from the window, waving, until our car was swallowed up by green.

 We were bored by the second afternoon, but Grandma wouldn’t budge on her no-TV-til-after-dinner policy. “You’ll figure it out,” was all she said when we asked if she had ideas on what to do. She went back to puzzling over her quilt. Sometimes I imagined what things would’ve been like if Grandpa were around—how he’d pretend he was an alligator and chase us, show us the best climbing trees, make us milkshakes. I never really knew him, though, so maybe he would’ve been stern. He was killed by a heart attack when I was a baby, way before there was even a whisper of Claire in our lives.

There was a picture of us up on the fireplace mantle, Grandpa holding me and smiling at my gummy baby grin. Seeing it always made me proud. I guess I liked having evidence of a time when I was the only kid in the family, soaking up everyone’s love on my own. 

“Look Claire,” I said, picking it up one afternoon, “that was me when you were a Skee Ball in heaven, just waiting for God to roll you down the ramp.” 

I handed it to her and she immediately dropped the frame picture-side down. It landed on the brick hearth, making a horrible shattering sound. 

“Oh, girls,” Grandma sighed, after she’d come running into the room and found us. She put an arm around Claire, who’d started crying a little. “I would tell you to clean this up yourselves, but I suppose you don’t have any idea how. Lord knows your mother hasn’t taught you a thing about housekeeping.

“I always told her she’d never be able to keep a man, making messes like that,” she went on, staring down at the shards of glass, which twinkled up at me when I moved my head back and forth. “And look where we are now.”

Even then, I knew it was kind of ludicrous to blame Mom’s housekeeping for my parents’ problems. Not that Grandma was exactly wrong. It was certainly true that we’d litter the house for weeks with clothes and toys and breadcrusts. But Mom always corralled us eventually, snapping a dishtowel at our thighs. “We’re cleaning!” she’d say, pulling her old hot pants from underneath the bed. 

We never wanted to clean, but once we got started it was kind of fun. We blared the radio and wore the hot pants and scoured everything ‘til it gleamed. Eventually, we’d collapse on the sofa and Mom would gather us into her arms, squeezing tight. “We cleaned the shit outta this place!” she’d scream, exalted, her face like a bright, shiny apple.  

Come to think of it, Dad might’ve actually been hot for slobs. After Mom was Margene, who smoked Virginia Slims in their apartment, leaving a film of ash everywhere she went. She would sit at the kitchen table with us for hours, smoking out the window, wearing a full face of makeup, while we colored or played games. She’d draw her long, manicured nails down our pages, remarking on the pretty work we’d done.

Margene was nice that way. We could tell she wanted us to like her and were happy to play along. She braided our hair in complicated arrangements and did our lipstick and gave us plastic pom-poms. Her and Dad always had a bribe waiting when we came to visit, like new dresses or giant teddy bears. One weekend, there was a pair of real kittens sitting behind the front door, little bows tied around their necks. 

“Surprise!” Margene yelled, clapping her hands. Claire and I actually screamed with joy.

The kittens went crazy when they saw us, pouncing and biting at our fingers, but we didn’t mind. We untied the bows and let the kittens paw at them, and then wrestled baby doll bonnets onto their heads. When evening came, we set our sleeping bags on the living room floor so we could stay with them through the night. We tried to get them to cuddle up with us, but they woke up after Margene and Dad went to bed. They started running around, scratching at things, and dropping butterscotch turds all over the floor. 

Claire and I didn’t know what to do, so we left the turds waiting there like little landmines. When Margene came out of the bedroom the next morning, she stopped just short of stepping in one. Claire and I sat up in our sleeping bags, rubbing our eyes, watching Margene consider what to do. It was one of the few times I’d seen her without makeup—her lips looked skinny and pale. The face of a newt, I thought, out of nowhere.

Margene put a finger to her lips, and motioned for us to follow her outside. I was sure she was going to tell us to clean up the turds ourselves, and be quiet about it too. But once we were on the porch, she said: “You girls ready for a surprise?”

I wasn’t sure about any surprise. When an adult tried to say something was fun, it usually ended up being the opposite, plus were still in our PJs and socks. I nodded because it seemed like the polite thing to do. Margene took us to her car, and I let Claire have shotgun, climbing into the backseat. Wham! blasted from the speakers the second she turned on the car, and she and Claire started singing along: “Wake me up before you go go!”  

I looked out the window and wondered when Dad would wake up. I pictured him walking out of his room right into a turd. He would laugh or swear or maybe both and call for us until he realized we were gone.

Margene drove us through their neighborhood, and into the cornfields at the edge of town. The road stretched in front of us, narrowing to a pinpoint in the distance. I wondered how far we’d follow it, if she’d drop us off somewhere like Mom did, and speed away for a while.

Eventually, we pulled up in front of a big, brick building with a rusty-looking playground out front. “Here it is,” Margene said.

“It looks like a school,” I said. And in fact, it was. 

It turned out Margene was the janitor there. She snuck us in the building, a thick ring of keys jangling at her hip. The surprise was that we got to use the old aluminum trash chute as a slide. 

“Like this,” she said at the top. She crossed her arms over her chest, and slid into the void. We could hear her screaming all five floors down.

After that, Claire wanted me to go first. I sucked in my breath and rattled down, arms pinned to my sides. I thought about green lunchmeat and how there were so many ways to die. I tumbled out, blinking, with sticky hair and clenched palms. Margene was standing in front of me in her checked pajama pants, clapping, her cigarette already lit. “There you go, baby,” she said. A breeze rolled through, lifting the edge of my nightgown. I turned my face toward the wind, listening as Claire barreled down, and all that air made me feel so clean.